HEY hypothetical readers. This is another story from a creative writing class I took in my freshman year of college. I think the prompt was to write something with a specific tone in mind, and so I decided to do something a little different and wrote this, a kind of supernatural/horror story. Hope you enjoy it!
In rural Tennessee there is a legend of a creature that wanders from town to town, spreading madness and ruin in its wake, preying on the troubled and weak of heart. On certain summer nights, those lonely folks who live deep under oak and hemlock pull trailer curtains closed, and lay a loaded shotgun beside the bed. There in the dark they whisper of things that stalked the earth long before man or woman could dream.
The Stranger was bubbling out his life under the blood moon. Stuart held the Stranger’s head in blood slick hands and prayed for headlights, but none came. The Stranger’s sickly twisted body was illuminated in old man moon’s hungry orange stare. Stuart felt very alone, out on the interstate in the dark, surrounded by clawing trees.
The man in Stuart’s arms made a clicking noise every time he drew breath. The sound seemed to fill the world. Stuart could feel it through his hands, like something was trapped in the man’s chest, shoving against his ribs – click- snap-pop.
“They’ll be here soon” Stu muttered, filling his ears with something other than the Stranger’s terrible breathing – click-pop-click – like a dying fire spitting sparks.
“I called an ambo. Headlights, man, just wait. They can move you.”
The Stranger let out a noise like a bundle of twigs snapping. Stu looked down at him and saw that he was laughing. Stu wanted to drop him in the dust and run. The night air pressed down around them, anticipating. The Stranger made a feeble gesture with two mangled fingers and Stuart reluctantly bent down, his ear full of the Stranger’s hot breath.
“I’m not going,” click-click-pop “anywhere” click-click “Stuart.” Then, much louder, the mouth widening into a manic grin full of broken and bloody teeth,
“You’re mine now.”
Something, probably a rabbit caught by a fox, screamed somewhere in the night. Sycamores and pines rustled in a warm night breeze. Crickets buzzed. Somewhere overhead, a jet passed by. In that moment, all Stuart could hear was the Stranger’s crackling, rasping breath and the sound of the world changing.
It was a brutally hot afternoon, the kind of heat where you could hear your blood pounding in your ears, though you could hardly hear anything over the cicadas. It was one of those years when there were thousands of the little bastards, buzzing their short lives away, flitting from the shade of Spanish moss into the shimmering afternoon heat. They made Stuart feel tired.
Stu had been sitting in front of his diner listening to Casey’s Last Ride on WKNP. Smoke curling from his cigarette pooled in lazy circles on the ceiling of the screen porch, to be scattered by a squeaking fan. His left hand idly picked at the curling paint of the siding behind his head. Stuart had rested his sweating glass of tea against his cheek and caught movement in the weird, swaying reflections that clung to Main Street’s asphalt.
Garrett’s battered F-150 materialized out of that wavering haze and parked across the street. Garrett, his face and skinny arms blistered with sunburn, stepped up onto the porch, tying on his grimy apron.
“Mornin’ Stu,” he said, and collapsed into an adirondack that creaked under him. “Anyone come in yet?”
“Nope,” Stuart replied, and then yelled inside “Hunter, you’re off!” Hunter, Stu’s daughter, gave her father and her father’s buddy a withering glare as she swept out of the screen door and walked out into the shimmering street, probably to find those no good Ernmeyer boys. Stuart sighed.
“You made the kid stay? You said there weren’t nobody in. That’s cold, Stu. I wouldn’t even be here if you could do any honest work.”
“You couldn’t get another job if you tried. Hunt needs someone looking over her shoulder. God knows her mother don’t give a shit what she’s doing.”
“Kelsey. She’s always been bad news. Didn’t I tell you? I said ‘Stu, don’t go doin’ nothing you’ll regret -”
“You didn’t say shit.”
“But then you went and married her. You’re hopeless, my friend.”
“We used your car to drive to Memphis and get hitched!”
“Just because I was the only junior at Riley High with a car doesn’t mean I approved. I lent it to ya’ll with a heavy heart.”
Stu rolled his eyes and flicked the butt of his smoke into a bucket by the door, reached for another. “Go make us some lunch Garrett. Talking about High School makes me feel like my old man.”
Smirking, Garrett headed inside, the screen door screeching and slamming behind him.
Blood thundered in Stuart’s ears, and sweat trickled down his face. The cicadas buzzed. The humidity pressed down on him, making skin and air indistinguishable. Stuart gazed into the middle distance, watching the reflections of the trees shudder in the heat pooled on the asphalt of Main Street. That was when he first saw the Stranger.
At first, Stuart just thought it was a trick of the road mirages; some vague shape, snapping in and out of sight at the crest of a hill just beyond Gallagher’s Gas. Stuart blew greasy strands of blond hair out of his eyes and squinted, and the distorted shape of a man leapt into view. Stuart watched the guy amble slowly up Main, hands on the straps of a battered frame pack, heat haze trailing around his boots. The guy saw Stu eyeing him and waved.
Stuart sighed inwardly as he waved back. It wasn’t that he disliked drifters; in fact he had a bit of a soft spot for the occasional wanderer. It was just that money was tight and he couldn’t really afford to feed someone for free. The guy approached, leaned his pack on the foot of the porch steps, and stretched expansively.
“Hey there, my main man Stuart! How’s it hanging?” The Stranger, as Stu mentally labeled him, was tall, with greying hair and black, glinting eyes. His denim jacket was faded at the shoulder from the sun, and his dungarees were tatty at the hems. He stood, grinning a mossy yellow grin up at Stuart, who was momentarily speechless.
“Well? Invite me in?”
“How the hell do you know my name?”
“It says it right on your sign, so you must be old Stu himself. Lemme bum a smoke and get off my feet, if yah don’t mind.”
“Familiar fella, aren’t you?”
“Only way to be, bud.”
“Sure come on up here, take a load off. Hope you don’t mind Winstons.” The Stranger’s boots sounded hollow on the oak boards of the porch as he settled himself into the chair next to Stuart. Wordlessly, Stu offered him a cigarette and the man lit up. They smoked for a few moments, until the silence became oppressive.
Stu shifted uncomfortably, then said, “These cicadas are something, huh?”
“Yeah, they’re good company for a road warrior like myself. This is a great year for them too.” The Stranger spoke with the drawl of rural southern rednecks everywhere, like he was talking around a lip full of chaw.
“Yeah, fucking things are everywhere. Where you comin’ from?”
“Oh, around. You know, there’s big mojo every 17 years. All sorts of critters raise their heads, summer like this one, not just cicadas.”
There was a little noise from inside the diner that made Stuart look around. He caught a quick glimpse of Garrett peering out from behind a shade, watching them. Stu glared at him, and Garrett withdrew. Moments later, the screen door squealed on rusted springs as Garrett emerged, carrying a limp cheese sandwich.
“Hey Stu, you alright out here?” The Stranger gave Garrett a wave, and Garret stared back with flat, unfriendly eyes.
“Yeah, we’re fine. Why are you being so skeevey?”
“Is this gent a customer?”
“Damn hoss, show the man some hospitality. You’re acting like more of an asshole than normal.”
Garrett said nothing, just raised his eyebrow at Stu and handed him his sandwich. The screen door screamed as he went back inside.
“What was his problem?” The Stranger asked, thick blue smoke curling from his mouth with every word.
“Garrett’s just an herb. We’re not used to strangers in town, just some of us are less particular ’bout it than others.”
“Happens all the time, people don’t always take kindly to strangers. Now, Stu my man, I’v got a few bucks burning a hole in my pants, and I’ve got a hanker to get lit tonight. Where’s a fella to do that herebouts?”
“Well bud, I guess it’s almost five. I can give you a ride out to my favorite bar, if you like.”
“That sounds like a plan. I got just enough for the first round, then you’re buying.”
“Sure. Just give me a few to close up here.”
The screen door howled and slammed behind Stuart as he walked into the dingy coolness of his diner. Dust and smoke from the range made light from the grimy windows pool in brown shafts on the dark wood floor. Garrett was at the register and gave Stu a wary glance.
“Stu, Hunter left something for you.”
It was a sticky note, taped on the till. Dad, cover for me.
“Fuck. Kelsey’s gonna rip me a new one. God damn it, that girl.” Stuart leaned on the chipped Formica counter and put his head in his hands for a minute, massaging his pounding temples.
“ I got to make sure she makes it back home tonight.” Stuart stood up, untied his apron, and hung it up on a peg by the door to the kitchen. As he turned to leave, Garrett put his hand on Stu’s shoulder.
“Just go home, man. You’ve got enough on your plate. Besides, you already been talking to a hobo today, don’t need any more bad luck.”
Stu slapped his hand away.
“Climb out of my ass. And also, you need to bitching about out-of-towner customers in here. We’re a dollar away from being just like that guy out there.”
“I’ve told you, Stu. You can’t trust –“
“I don’t care what your godamn grandma said about the gremlins that crawl out of strangers necks. Keep that superstitious bullshit out of here. You close up tonight.”
“Fine. Billy’s later?”
Stu ignored him. Cursing under his breath, Stuart stormed out, and slammed the rusty screen door behind him. He gestured at the Stranger, who had his boots up on the porch railing.
“Well, come on then. After the day I’ve had, I need to get loaded.”
He and the Stranger ambled over to Stu’s rusted and peeling Buick. Stu started the coughing engine, flooded it and stalled.
“You gotta be easy with her, hoss.”
“I know,” Stu growled, “Its my car.”
Stu started the Buick again and the engine caught. He peeled out in a cloud of smoke, and sped down Main.
“I have to make sure my kid gets home. Hope that’s OK.”
The Stranger just picked his teeth with a thumbnail, staring out into air made thick by fluttering cicadas.
They sat parked across from Kelsey’s trailer for almost two hours. Stu played WKNP on the radio, and the Stranger tapped his hands on the dash and grinned. The sun sank below the horizon, bathing the car in a red glow, and making the lengthening shadows of the trees press in around them. Cicadas gave way to crickets, and a firefly flew in the Stranger’s window. He picked it up and let it crawl between his long, thin fingers. Purple clouds chased rosy ones out of the sky, and Mars glinted as a blood moon opened its orange eyes to glare down on earth.
“Why the long face?” The Stranger’s grin made Stuart angry. He wished he hadn’t brought the man with him now.
“Nothing. Bear with me.”
Soon Stu could hear a stereo blaring Kenny Chesney coming down the dirt road behind them. An SUV pulled up in front of Kelsey’s trailer. An indistinct figure scampered from the car into the trailer, and moments later, Stuart heard shouting coming from inside. Stu started up his engine again, acrid exhaust filling the Buick as he did.
“That girl is no damn good.”
“Lives with her mama?”
“Don’t see as how it matters to you.”
The Stranger leered at Stuart, dark eyes glittering in the moonlight. The silence stretched, and Stu couldn’t help but look away.
“Whatever man. I could use that damn drink now.” Stuart cruised out of Sunnydale Mobile Village, dust spitting up from the Buick’s wheels. As he steered for Billy’s Saloon, his mind was not on the road, but on his family. He should spend more time with Hunter, he thought. She needed him, no matter how much Kelsey hollered. Plus, having her around kept him grounded. It had been good working with her these past few weeks, even though she hated every second of it. He should talk to her about these little awol stunts she kept pulling. He’d do it first thing when she came in tomorrow.
These thoughts kept him company until he and the Stranger pulled into Billy’s. Stuart parked next to Garrett’s F-150, which was sitting alone in the lot. The Stranger got out and, without a word, disappeared into the bar. Stuart shrugged.
“Good riddance.” He said, and spat viciously. He ambled in and sat at the bar, ignoring the Stranger, who stared at him from a booth. Bill Wythe, the bartender and owner, strolled over.
“Whatcha want tonight?”
“A pitcher of Bud and a Wild Turkey. Hey, is Garrett here?”
“Naw, I took his keys and sent him home.”
“Damn man, that’s a long ass walk.”
“Too bad. He was lit and yelling about ya’ll having a fight. He knocked down one of the old timers. Had to kick him out.”
“Stuart there said he’d kill that lazy fuck if he had half a chance, that Garrett fella.”
Bill and Stuart glanced up at the Stranger, who had spoken from his corner booth. From here, the only thing Stu could see was the man’s yellow-toothed grin. Stuart gave the bastard a look that could melt ice and turned back to Bill.
“Yeah, I didn’t say that.”
“Whatever,” said Bill, “He had to go. Just stay out of each other’s way for a couple of days, or go and pick his ass up and bang each other for all I care. You’ve been in here too much lately, I get tired of your ugly face.”
Stuart scoffed and took his first shot. So began a night that would be worthy of one of his father’s worst benders. Stuart drank. He drank until he could not remember the diner, Garrett, the Stranger, his family, or his name. He drank until he sang along with Hank Williams on the juke. The Stranger watched him the whole time, grinning. Nobody sat next to him. Eventually Stuart was drunk enough to dance with Patty Dugger, and drunk enough to get thrown out of Billy’s by Hank Dugger, Bill shouting at him all the way. He was so drunk that he ended up puking his guts out on the side of Garrett’s pickup.
“Home.” Stu mumbled to the listening night. He wondered if he should find the Stranger. He decided that the Stranger go fuck himself for all he cared. The next few minutes were a grey blur. Fumbling with keys. Struggling to start his car. Waving at Bill Wythe, who was shouting at him.
Stuart puttered down the road, the Buick coughing along in low gear. He wove his way onto 374, and drove into a tunnel of looming trees, into the night. His headlights sliced away at the slick, oppressive dark. His head spun and the trees clutched at his car, brittle claws crackling with his passing.
Then, clear as rain, he knew he should stop. He should find a parking lot somewhere and sleep it off.
“Too far away now,” he muttered aloud, “Too far down.” The road turned endlessly in front of him, like the bottom of a hamster wheel. Something like fear turned his gut, like an animal stirring under wet leaves, but he paid it no mind. Stu closed his eyes, just for a second. The wind from the window was cool on his face, and if something followed him, and passed him by there, alone on the road, he paid it no mind either.
And if, alone in the dark, a man stumbled toward home, and was taken by cold, thin fingers that reached out of the hemlocks, no one knew, and no one minded. And when that grinning thing finally flung him into the path of oncoming lights, he was glad to feel the cool radiator grille when it caressed his face.
Skidding off the road. Panic. Pain, as things snatched at his face and gouged his arms. A second of terrible confusion as the world seemed to teeter and falter. Then ancient airbags exploded out of the Buick and slapped him in the face. The fabric burned, shattered his nose, and smashed his right arm against the gearshift.
Then there was silence.
Night peepers shrilled as Stuart groaned and looked around. Confused, he slapped at the airbag in his face and was surprised to see that his arm flopped weirdly at the forearm. Pain gushed through him as sobriety came back in a horrible, gut wrenching rush. Awkwardly, he used his left hand to open his door and step out of the car. His head spun. The Buick was in the ditch at the side of the road, front bumper mangled and crushed, and the open door tone bonging incongruously. Stu stumbled a few steps and sat down hard on the asphalt of the road.
Then he heard a moan.
What just happened? I must have hit my head, Stu thought. I’m afraid.
The man in Stuart’s arms made a clicking noise every time he drew breath. The sound seemed to fill the world. Stuart could feel it through his hands –
“They’ll be here soon” Stu muttered aloud, filling his ears with something other than terrible breathing – click-pop-click, like a dying fire spitting sparks.
Then, sudden as blinking, the figure in his arms calmed and looked up at him with eyes that reflected the orange glitter of the moon, and spoke.
“It,” pop-click-click “was” click-click “chasing me.” Then, much more softly;
“It hurts,” click-pop-click “Oh Christ.”
Something, probably a rabbit caught by a fox, screamed somewhere in the night.
Then Stu heard a sound he had never been happy to hear in his life. Sirens. There was an ambulance, maybe a cop too. As the headlights sliced away the darkness, Stu felt relief wash over him.
“Hey man, they’re here!”
He looked down at the crumpled figure in his arms.
It was Garrett.
Later, in the back of the police car, the road lit by flashing lights, Stuart thought about his family. He might not ever see them again. Bill Wythe had called the police on him. Beyond the plexiglass barrier separating them from Stu, the two deputies talked about bad blood and arguments, bath salts and mutilation. The cruiser’s window was cool on Stuart’s cheek. As the dark landscape past him, illuminated in the garish red and blue of the police car’s lights, cicadas that had hibernated for 17 years slept again. Peepers orated over the gentle meter of crickets. The blood moon shone through the twisted branches overhanging the road, painting the asphalt in dappled orange. And something watched Stuart from the depth of the trees, loping along in the dark just out of reach of light. It was grinning a yellow grin, and chuckling with breath like rotting leaves.